Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

A STORY OF FIVE LEMONS

In the past few days I’ve been contacted by quite a number of students from Texas, who told me that my poem ‘Five Lemons’ was set as an essay subject for their IB exam (I’m guessing that’s International Baccalaureate?). They mostly seem to have liked the poem but they also ask for interpretations of it. Since it isn’t possible for me to discuss the poem with everyone individually, I’m writing this to tell the story of the poem and offer a few comments. I hope they’re helpful!

Free stock photo of food, healthy, nature, water

But first, here’s the poem for those who don’t know it:

FIVE LEMONS

Here are five lemons from the poet’s garden,

the colour of white gold and icy sunshine,

flooded with green around the pointed nipples.

My younger daughter cuts one into quarters,

careful of fingers, bites the white-furred pith out,

devours the quartz-white segments with her eyes shut,

sighing and swaying in the sharp enjoyment.

 

Here are four lemons from the poet’s garden:

one perched on three, a perfect tetrahedron.

The poet’s widow showed me where to pick them,

kindly and shrewd, helping me find the best ones,

holding the branch down while I snapped the stalks off,

the cold breeze in our faces from the mountain.

We’ll halve this one and squeeze it over couscous.

 

Here are three lemons from the poet’s garden

still in the bowl, turned in a neat triangle,

yellower now. My elder daughter chooses,

after long thought, one for her still-life painting,

the twisted leaves like green airplane-propellers

with a Cezanne pear and a Braque violin,

fractured into art-deco Cubist slices.

 

Here are two lemons from the poet’s garden

below his tall house on the terraced hillside,

red earth black-pitted with his fallen olives

between the gnarled trunks trailing silver foliage,

beside the boulders of the dusty torrent

rainless above that sea of sparkling turquoise.

The juice is perfect for a tuna salad.

 

Here is a lemon from the poet’s garden,

the last of them. Long is the poet gone,

silent his grave on the hilltop under the cypress,

long the shadows drawn by moon and sun

out from the low walls and high gate of the graveyard.

I press the waxy peel to my face and breathe it.

There are no words for what the fragrance tells me.

 

So here’s the story. In 1997 I was asked to edit The White Goddess, Robert Graves’s wonderful book about myth and poetic inspiration, for a new collected edition of Graves’s writings. Graves (1895-1985) had died twelve years earlier, and though he was an English poet and novelist (best known probably for I Claudius), he had lived in the village of Deya in Majorca. His son William invited me over there, to see Graves’s own copy of the book, which had many corrections and alterations that needed to be put into the new edition.

I was hugely excited because it was reading Graves’s work that had first turned me on to poetry, something which changed my life and has dominated it happily ever since.

La Casa de Robert Graves

So I went to Deya. Robert Graves’s house, where his widow Beryl still lived, was on the hillside just outside the village. It had a sloping garden with fruit trees and olive trees. Beryl welcomed me into the house, where nothing had changed since Robert Graves’s death. His hats were still on the hatpegs, his coats were in the closet in the entrance hall. Beryl said ‘You’d better work in here!’ and took me into Graves’s study.

Everything was just as he’d left it: his pens and pencils, coins and little pebbles and other trinkets were on the desk, his books were on the shelves, there was an unfinished letter which he’d never signed lying on one of the surfaces. The atmosphere was electric: completely magical. So I sat in Robert Graves’s chair, at his desk, surrounded by his books and possessions, and Beryl brought me his copy of The White Goddess with all his markings in it, and I began work.

Each day Beryl would give me lunch. Although she was living out in the Majorcan mountains, her household was completely English. She had two cats and a little dog, she had the Times Literary Supplement delivered every week, she had an ‘Aga’ stove, and for lunch she made things like scrambled eggs on toast, and bananas and custard. She was delightful.

At the end of the week I had finished my work on the book, but before I left Beryl took me down into the orchard below the house and helped me to pick the lemons, just as I’ve described in the poem. (The ‘dusty torrent’ is one of the ‘torrents’ or watercourses which run down the parched Majorcan hillsides between the olive groves; they fill up with water at certain times of year, or in summer at certain hours when the limited water supply is opened up to flow in that direction – the neighbours take turns to have the water, because it’s so scarce – so the ‘torrent’ is really more of a ‘channel’.)

I took the lemons home, and the poem describes what happened to them.

Now, about interpretation. Some people have asked me what the poem means, or to give them an interpretation, or to explain it to them. I don’t think that is really possible, because a poem doesn’t have just one meaning. It means different things to different people. Obviously we can all agree that a lemon is a lemon, and that turquoise is a colour we recognise; but once the poem is written it becomes an object, a thing that people can look at from different angles and turn over in their minds and reflect on. And everyone will come up with a different interpretation. There’s no single ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation, and I love it when people see things in my poems that I didn’t know were there!

That’s as it should be. A poem isn’t a riddle that has a single correct answer. It’s more like a painting: everyone can look at it, and each person can find something different there. And as long as what you find fits with the words, then it’s right. The more meanings the better!

I can add few details. Obviously the poet’s garden – for me – is Robert Graves’s garden. (But maybe it could be any poet’s garden!) The grave is his (sorry about the repetition of the word ‘grave’, it can’t be helped!) – a very simple village grave in the small churchyard at Deya on the hilltop, which does have a low stone wall and then a tall gate which sticks up. But again it could be any poet who has died.

In the poem I think I’m a bit sad at the end as I smell the fragrance of the last lemon. It’s my final contact with the place and the experience, and with Beryl, and it’s like a gift from the poet himself; but there are some things you can’t put into words, so the poem ends maybe with a touch of sadness, a memory that’s valuable but also admitting that even in a poem you can’t say everything.

So my warmest thanks to all the people who wrote to me, for your generous appreciation of the poem. I hope you really enjoyed it even though it came to you as part of a test – maybe not the best way to meet a poem! I hope it left some happy pictures in your minds, and also a pleasant scent of lemons!

If you ever want to visit the the house – La Casa de Robert Graves – the website is here:

http://www.lacasaderobertgraves.org/en/

In the garden at Deya – with some more lemons!

 

URSULA K. LE GUIN

I want to pay tribute to Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018), the wonderful fantasy writer who died on 22 January this year. Her Earthsea trilogy (later a tetralogy, in fact) is the only fantasy work – apart perhaps from C.S. Lewis’s very different Narnian Chronicles – that I would put on a par with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I devoured the Earthsea books – read and re-read them – when I was a teenager, and they helped to change my view of the world. Their balance of Taoist wisdom, Castaneda-inspired magic (both her parents were anthropologists), narrative excitement and poetic vision make them, for me, still unique in the realm of fantasy. I’ve put in the covers of my slightly battered old Puffin copies here.

Her hero Ged became a role model for me; and his two (sometimes conflicting) pursuits – for magical (read, if you like, spiritual) understanding, and for ways to sustain the ecological balance of the world – have been the quests of my life also. Le Guin’s fiction clarified them for me.

 

She was said to have become discontented with the original Earthsea trilogy because it was too male-centred; I was never sure I agreed, because the second, central volume, The Tombs of Atuan, had a wonderful heroine, Tenar, who plays a central role and, initially, holds all the power in her hands, as a trainee priestess in whose underground labyrinth Ged finds himself trapped.

I haven’t read as many of Le Guin’s sci-fi books as I should; I shall now do so. The one I have read is The Lathe of Heaven: a powerful parable about trying too hard to improve the world. That book has become an essential part of my thinking and I recommend it strongly, to technologists and ecologists alike.

There was undoubtedly something magical about Ursula Le Guin herself. When I heard the announcement of her death on the radio, quite unexpectedly I found all the hairs on my body standing up: a wave of energy went over me. Then again when I heard her discussed on Last Word, the BBC’s obituary programme. She was one of those extraordinary women – among them I would name Kathleen Raine, Lois Lang-Sims, Iona Opie the folkorist, and Nancy Sandars, translator of Gilgamesh – who have very special qualities of imagination and wisdom which the world needs and which they find ways of transmitting.

I think of these female elders as the Sibyls or prophetesses. For some people, the proverbial ‘Old Wives [i.e. women’s] Tales’ is a term of abuse. Not for me. It’s the tales told by old women that are the most important. (Tolkien agreed: look at the episode of the healing herb, athelas or kingsfoil, near the end of the Lord of the Rings). Their lives and experience (they all seem to a ripe old age) have distilled something that the rest of us seriously need. Fortunately Ursula Le Guin left it for us in her books. Read and enjoy!

THE JANUARY MAN

I’ve just finished reading Christopher Somerville’s entertaining, vivid and thought-provoking book, The January Man. In outline, it’s an account of the year, month by month, describing a walk (or sometimes several walks) in a different part of the United Kingdom for every month.

Somerville is well known as the Times walking correspondent, so he’s ideally qualified to guide us, whether it’s on the Norfolk coast or the remote island of Foula in the Shetlands. But his book is about much more than walking.

Besides beautifully-written observations of nature – trees, birds, insects, fungi – as the seasons turn, the book explores Christopher Somerville’s many enthusiasms: it’s full of fascinating reflections on music and poetry, ecology and folklore, tall stories, old buildings, modern farming and a thousand other things. At one moment, Somerville is recreating a youthful hitchhiking expedition that took him and a friend all the way to Istanbul; the next, he’s recreating a long-gone country fair in Wiltshire, now almost forgotten but a few short generations ago so important that half a million sheep and 750 tons of hops were sold there annually, and cheese was traded by the ton.

As if that’s not enough, the book sketches – lightly and engagingly, in touches that build up month by month into a vivid portrait – memories of his father, a taciturn man who never spoke much about his quietly courageous war service, and even less about his top-secret work at GCHQ. Walking together on long-distance footpaths was, mostly, the closest father and son came to shared communication. It’s all perfectly judged: moving and fascinating without any sense of emotional overspill. Quite an achievement, and one that will touch a verse with many of us whose parents were from that emotionally-reticent generation.

Christopher’s website is at www.christophersomerville.co.uk – For a link to order the book, see foot of this page.

As a bonus, the book introduces us to Dave Goulder’s great folksong, ‘The January Man’, from which it takes its title. I can’t find Martin Carthy’s performance of that fine song (the version mentioned in the book) so I’ll put in a haunting version by the Albion Christmas Band with some charming if slightlky kitsch astrological imagery (no offence – as I wrote once in a poem about Mexico, in some contexts ‘kitsch is authenticity’!).

The January Man is definitely one of my books of the year: the perfect Christmas present for anyone who loves walking, or the countryside, or loves odd facts and surprising stories. Add a beautiful cover painting, and a link to download a free walking guide from Christopher Somerville’s website, and what more could you ask? I’m already realising how lazy I’ve been this year. The shortest day will soon be past; and then I swear I’ll lace up my boots and be on the move again. Thanks, Christopher!

CHARLES WILLIAMS IN PAPERBACK

I’ve just received the first paperback copies of Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. Very exciting. Pleasant too for readers, because they can now get the book for a sensible, indeed pretty modest, price: £12.99 for a 490 page biography with 36 glossy plates.

My first copies, with Aslan the Lion – the white lion trophy is the Mythopoeic Society’s Award for Inklings Scholarship, which the book won when it came out

The hardback was a handsome book, but at £25 you couldn’t expect many people except Williams fanatics to buy it. It has sold well enough but I suspect mainly to libraries, and those Inklings enthusiasts who couldn’t bear to wait!

I’m also pleased that Williams’s fame has developed since I wrote the book. I was keen to make this astonishing character and his remarkably rich work known to far more people, and this seems to have happened.

Stephen Barber has edited a new collection of his essays, The Celian Moment, from Greystones Press; Sørina Higgins has edited his remarkable unpublished verse drama The Chapel of the Thorn for Apocryphile a handsome new hardback edition of his novels is in progress; and Apocryphile has reissued the poems of Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars in the USA.

And John Matthews and I have edited his Arthurian poems – comprising all the poems on the Arthurian mythos which he published during his lifetime – for publication in the near future, with an essay by each of us.

Williams is increasingly being recognised as the remarkable writer, teacher and esoteric figure which he was, taking his rightful place alongside his more famous but less bizarre friends, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

GRATITUDE for 1964

Over the holidays I found myself remembering earlier Christmases, and realising how important Christmas 1964 had been for me – and how grateful I am to my parents for making it so.

I was 16 then, and my parents had got into the way of asking me what presents I’d like for Christmas. Extremely kind of them, and kinder still not to turn a hair when I asked for some fairly unusual things – especially unusual in those days, I suspect!

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Threefold magic: here they are, battered but still in use

What they gave me, and what I must have asked for, though I don’t recall the asking, was: (a) a set of Tarot cards; (b) a copy of The Golden Bough; and (c) a copy of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.

They gave me all of them, and with the enthusiasm of youth – and a youth still in the process of discovering, or making, a self, I wrote my name in all of them. Three different versions of my name, in fact. With the date. And that’s how I know that all these wonderful things arrived at that particular Christmas.

christmas1964

Those gifts led to a great deal. I’ve been interested in Tarot ever since, and at some periods of my life reading Tarot on a regular basis. It helped me to appreciate Charles Williams’s novel The Greater Trumps far more deeply than I could otherwise have done. And I’ve just had the honour of reviewing Cherry Gilchrist’s excellent book Tarot Triumphs for Quest magazine in the US.


As for The White Goddess, I sat up reading it every night between Christmas and New Year, utterly enchanted and fascinated. It made me want to read Robert Graves’s poems. I hadn’t read any modern poetry before, but together with The White Goddess those poems got me hooked. I wanted to write poems too. Graves’s books made me a poet, setting me on course for a lifetime. And in the 1990s I edited The White Goddess, working at Graves’s former house and getting to know the wonderful Graves family, and many Graves scholars. Again, life-changing.

And Frazer? I have to admit that I’ve only read The Golden Bough right through once. It doesn’t quite have Graves’s verse and excitement. Nor do I wholly believe Frazer’s theories about the universal dying-vegetation-god cult any longer. With Ronald Hutton, I suspect that it’s our own secret religion, more than that of the ancient world. But how we need it! I’ve dipped into The Golden Bough many times to find details related to Graves, TS Eliot and other authors and things. And I really, really will try to read it once more in this life!

Nice to see that in 1964 you could buy a new 756-page hardback for thirty-five shillings! That’s £1.75p in today’s money, or about $2.15.

But what great foundations for an imaginative life! Blessings on my kind and understanding parents who listened to me and gave what Yeats might have called ‘the right twigs for an eagle’s nest’. I may be more of a jackdaw, but I’m still busy trying to build that nest, 42 years later. Happy New Year, all blessings to you, and may all your gifts prove as fruitful as these did for me!